Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



Ross Moffett and the Modernist Tradition

by Josephine C. Del Deo


It is instructive to live long enough to have formulated a definitive opinion or thesis and then to have been able to return to it with a reinforced understanding and a confident perspective. Thus, a short essay may reflect an entire creative construct. In the case of Ross Moffett (1888-1971) and his relationship to the tradition of modernism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that is exactly the privilege I now enjoy in writing this essay. The word "privilege" accurately reflects my meaning, for the creative process is never a short experience, or, if it is, then the resultant formulations may or may not be quite as appropriate to their subject as they might have been if seen in retrospect. Robert Frost offered a wise dictum to aspiring poets when he advised them to place freshly composed poems in a drawer and leave them there until they were well forgotten. Upon rediscovery, he said, they would yield up their true value and meaning and it would be at that time that one could safely add final collection to original inspiration.

From 1970 to 1990, while the slow process of accumulating the material and allowing time for reflection in writing the biography of Moffett progressed, I was inspired by the example of John Rewald's History of Impressionism, for, in reading his important and remarkably complete overview of the art of that period and persuasion, I could see that Rewald had correctly perceived the labor necessary to paint a full portrait of Impressionism and was not content just to sketch an accumulation of personalities within a sodality lacking three dimensionality. It was this kind of full portrait, with all the figuration and scenery of the artist's life, that I sought to achieve in writing Figures in a Landscape: The Life and Times of the American Painter Moffett, 1888-1971[1] and which was the reason for the longevity of my effort: to place Moffett accurately and, certainly, three dimensionally in his total landscape.

Were I to face this task again, I would not make any substantial changes to my approach or in my conclusions; therefore, to synopsize the subject of Moffett and the modernist tradition would seem to be an easy accomplishment, but, at the same time, particularly difficult. One might have been asked to decide which leg or arm of the entire figure to be portrayed might be eliminated and still leave the figure standing to function as a complete entity. Let me assure the reader, however, that I do not contemplate such a metaphorical truncation. My discussion, placing Moffett securely within the modernist tradition and describing his rapid and rather meteoric development between 1927 and 1930, will constitute an approach somewhat akin to the painting technique of Charles W. Hawthorne, who confidently established large color notes on the canvas that unmistakably identified his model in the landscape.

In June 1926 a group of thirty members of the Provincetown Art Association signed a petition to the director, Harold Haven Brown, protesting the academic conservatism and the "closed" nature of the jury for the annual exhibition. They felt that the artists representing the "modernistic sympathies" as well as those representing traditional conservatism should be represented equally on the jury for the exhibition. The petition was written by Moffet and Tod Lindenmuth and was delivered to the director and the board of trustees for consideration by the full membership at a meeting scheduled for June 17, 1926. The central issue of the petition was stated as follows: "Considering the fact that there are, in Provincetown, two groups, each having different opinions as to what forms of painting are most likely to manifest genuine artistic merit, we regard it as unfair and out of keeping with American tradition for representatives of either group to be the sole arbiters as to what paintings shall be shown in the galleries of the Association."[2]

As a result of this petition, through a process of voting and discussion, a motion was passed at a meeting of the officers held on July 15, 1926, stating: "That, in the future, that in addition to the regular annual show directed by the vice-presidents and their jury, another show of equal duration shall be held by the moderns directed by a committee selected by them from their numbers."[3]

The first modernist exhibition occurred, therefore, a year later, from July 2 to 25, 1927, with a committee in charge that included Floyd Clymer, Edwin Dickinson, Lucy and William L'Engle, Charles A. Kaeslau, Karl Knaths, Blanche Lazell, Ross Moffett, Tod Lindenmuth, Dorothy Loeb, Ellen Ravenscroft, and Agnes Weinrich. (Of these twelve artists, eight are represented in the current exhibition.) Thus, one may take a backward look made crystal clear by the careful chronicle of Moffett, in his Art in Narrow Streets, of that very significant forward movement in the annals of the Provincetown Art Association.

As difficult as it may be for the present-day viewer to recognize "modernism" in this drama of determined rebellion and insistence on recognition by painters who called themselves "modernists" at that time but fit no patent definition regarding "modernist" tendencies today, we must understand that "modernism," as such, takes its place in every age of the development of similarly perceived interpretations. Duncan Phillips, the collector and major proponent of modern art at that time (who, incidentally, was largely responsible for the early recognition of the work of Karl Knaths) once said: "All those who were modernists in the past are entitled to keep that honor always on the pages of history."[4]

Although I have examined, in my biography, the productive careers of many of the artists with whom Moffett was associated most intimately at the time, noting the place they were occupying as his contemporaries in the art world -- the subject is too multifaceted to review here. Suffice it to say that in 1927 Moffett himself had arrived at the pinnacle of achievement that established him as one of the most important American painters of his generation. As early as 1918 he had won the Norman Wait Harris Silver Medal at an exhibition of American painting at the Art Institute of Chicago for The Old Fisherman (1918; private collection). Moffett was then thirty years old. In his earlier, expressionistic canvases, such as The Back Street, Provincetown (1917; Provincetown Art Association Museum), and those connecting and moving through the Tolstoyan period of his interpretations, Moffett himself described his preoccupation with the fate of man on a sociological level. Then, in a further development after 1923, he moved rapidly toward something far more characteristic of larger rhythms and the incorporation of the figure as predominantly integral and effectively incorporated into the abstract of the landscape itself.

I have emphasized, in writing about Hawthorne and his portrait tradition, especially, that he was a true inheritor of Titian and of Velásquez, a legacy passed on to him by his teacher William Merritt Chase and out of which he emerged as an American legatee. Among Hawthorne's successors in this discipline were two of his favorite students, Ross Moffett and Edwin Dickinson, both of whom, in their way, chose to continue that valued legacy through their own thoroughly individualistic temperaments. Hawthorne was regarded as the master in his portrayal of the Portuguese fishermen, individually and en famille, and of the resident Yankee enclave that constituted much of the Provincetown citizenry before 1916 and until his death in 1930. Moffett followed Hawthorne in expressing his own symbolic sense of the Portuguese fishermen and their families, for he thought of them as he did the farmer of his native Iowa and considered both from the standpoint of an inner expression rather than from what they presented as portraits of individuals. This, then, was truly the modernism of Moffett from the beginning -- the inner idea being the dominant and driving essence of his philosophical portrayal. His paintings were "man" fishing, not "the man" fishing.

The paintings that followed The Old Fisherman now included a new transcription that carried the thrust of his amazing talent with intense productivity. Among these large canvases were two that have come down to us untitled that I have named Blue Snow Figures and Goose and The Crucifixion (both ca. 1920-23; Berta Walker Gallery). These titles were suggested, in the first instance, by anecdotal detail and, in the second, by an inner compulsion of interpretation on my part. A third member of this family of canvases is the balanced stasis/motion rhythmic ballet of Return from the Marshes (fig. 39). These canvases represent a series, painted between about 1920 and 1922, and suggest a kind of enigmatic and romantic pictorial energy -- dominant in the two untitled works and in the quiet, autumnal moments caught with a perennial reassurance of man's diurnal rhythms in Return from the Marshes and in a painting of similar thematic elements, Plowing amid the Dunes. (1922; Collection of the Town of Provincetown)

Arriving rather suddenly now is a painting that catapults us into the heretofore-unprecedented aura of Cubism in Moffett's career. In 1925 he produced a work that he called Planting Potatoes (1925; whereabouts unknown), which has also been called The Potato Planters in certain catalogues. This major painting was exhibited at the Carnegie International of 1929. One does not need to point out the Cubist predilection, particularly, as it can be easily ascertained in this "modernist" treatment of a similar theme so successfully developed by Jean-François Millet in his painting The Gleaners (1857; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Planting Potatoes is a bold, successful initiation of the Cubist influence then strengthening everywhere, especially in Europe. Again, the artist chose a universal and familiar theme, planting crops, but positioned the women as integrated motifs in a densely Cubist pictorial atmosphere.

Following closely upon this new direction in his painting career, was another large, outstanding classic called The Cod Fisherman (1926; private collection) for which he won the W. R. French Gold Medal in 1927 at the Art Institute of Chicago. The critic Daniel Caton Rich enthused over the picture in an article for the Magazine of American Art, describing it as a powerful new interpretation of the figure. There is no question that Moffett caught a kind of iconic grandeur in this canvas, which strikes the viewer with an unforgettable image of the rugged, enduring stature of a cod fisherman unloading his catch for the day and for eternity.

As we have seen in the incorporation of Cubist influences in Planting Potatoes, "modernism" had begun to make an impression in America as early as World War I and increasingly to bring to Provincetown the international trends felt in the major capitols and art colonies of Europe. The legacy of interacting contemporary theories is complex and requires a significant overview, as provided in my biography. I would like to suggest here, however, that just as the influences of art in any form are never completely parochial, they are never completely international, and the two combine and recombine in myriad ways as an era dictates. The period between the World Wars introduced an influx of artistic disciplines to American artists who were variously, and often profoundly, influenced by them. For example, Moffett and his close friends Karl Knaths and Agnes Weinrich were diligent in their examination of various theories. Blanche Lazell went to Europe to study with Albert Gleizes, André Lhote, and Fernand Leger. Flora Schofield spent time in the studio of Gino Severini, whose theories were examined with great care by both Moffett and Knaths, each sharing their notes in an ongoing dialogue. The notebooks of Paul Klee were especially reviewed, and Dorothy Moffett made copious entries regarding his principles in her notebooks. Marcoussis was a favorite among Provincetown artists -- the list is inappropriately exhaustive for this condensed essay. What was a recognized determinant in the art history of Provincetown during this period was the growth of modernism and of the uncompromising initiative of the painters of "modernistic sympathies," whom we have cited previously as presenting their names on a petition to the board of directors of the Provincetown Art Association in 1926 and demanding a window of opportunity to exhibit their art. Of this group, one should pay particular attention to the artist E. Ambrose Webster, for, as Ross Moffett cogently remarked about Webster in his chapter on this period in the Provincetown art colony's history in Art in Narrow Streets: "In fairness one could not end a chapter dealing with the emergence of modern art in Provincetown without special mention of E. Ambrose Webster, who, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was the pioneer of modernism in this area."[5]

Webster was one of two Provincetown artists who had exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show; the other was Oliver Chaffee. Chaffee had studied with both William Merritt Chase in New York and Charles W. Hawthorne in Provincetown. In 1920 he left America for an extended sojourn in France with his second wife, Ada Gilmore Chaffee, whose outstanding color woodblock prints highlighted every exhibition of the "modernists" in which she was included. Despite the impact of Cubism and, later, Fauvism, Chaffee remained a complete disciple of himself. One might say that his approach to painting defies any attempt to define his technique. He left an extraordinary series of canvases, some of them exceptionally large and all of them expressing a unique, independent use of color, form, and personal vision. He was distinctly free of obligation to any artistic persuasion and remains to this day an idiosyncratic anomaly among Provincetown's solidity of the select.

When Moffett saw the work of the modernists, both European and American, for the first time at the Armory Show of 1913, he was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition exposed him to an entire range of impressions that would eventually surface in his work. At the time, however, he and his fellow students shared an innocent moment of raillery at the expense of Henri Matisse, whom they dubbed "Henry Hair Mattress." Ross later described this hilarious nomenclature in his Autobiographical Notes: "A character called 'Henry Hair Mattress' was arraigned and charged with 'defaming' beauty. He was convicted and led off with a noose around his neck. That was the last we saw of Mattress.[6]

The irony, of course, was that in 1930 Ross Moffett served with his old friend "Mattress" of student days on the prestigious Jury of Awards of the annual Carnegie International Exhibition (fig. 40.). This jury also included Bernard Karfiol as an American representative, but I believe that Moffett was singled out as the "modernist," an appellation he shared with Matisse. Moffett also had been included on the Jury of Selection with his friend Charles Burchfield and, again, with Karfiol. This double honor was significant, as it was recognition of the stature he had achieved as a brilliantly talented American painter.

Ross Moffett had arrived at this pinnacle of achievement not through a desire for such notoriety, though he certainly appreciated the honor, but through his continuing and steadfast pursuit of his philosophy of painting, linked to his philosophy of life. From Moffett's own autobiographical account of his days between 1888 and 1918, which he handed me in 1970, it was clear that this philosophy of life was inextricably linked to the pictorial insights of his palette and that the two could not be separated. His palette turned out to be one of exceptional coloristic as well as formal and poetic organization, both as a metaphor for his life and of his understanding of painting. He was, in almost every sense, a man who seldom fell short of what we most admire in men of every age who have not sought the rewards of fame but have been dedicated to their own sense of development throughout their lives and have not been distracted by that of others.

Evident in the further advance of Moffett's painting career from 1927 to 1930 and especially inclusive of the modernist tradition are a group of paintings not to be eclipsed by those of any American artist of his time. Long after I have written the last word that I may be privileged to write about Moffett's work, his oil paintings and works in other media will still be coming to light. They will continue to amplify a collective achievement representing as varied a cargo of interpretations as does the extant inventory. There are few painters who have expressed such a wide interest and produced so many examples of each period of their work. These characteristics reveal Moffett's conscientiousness with regard to his perennial study of art in general and of the refinement of that knowledge in relation to his own.

The series of paintings created between 1927 and 1930 comprises a body of work of immense variety and consistently exceptional quality. One canvas after the other, such as The Cod Fisherman(1926; private collection), Manta Wharf (1927; Provincetown Art Association and Museum), Gull Hill (1929; J. C. Penny Corporation), and The Net Wagon (1931; private collection), presenting the monumentality of a figure in a landscape, comes to mind. At the same time, Ross Moffett was composing energetic and brilliant abstractions such as Lost City in the Andes (1929; private collection), The Conquest of Mexico (fig. 41), and Prison Riot (cat. no. 80), the latter symbolically related to the work of the Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. These works represent significant stages of resolution and experimentation as well that kept pouring from his studio; therefore, it is appropriate to include a somewhat in-depth discussion of the last three canvases mentioned here, as they derive from a similar genesis and are related compositionally. Prison Riot and The Conquest of Mexico were included in the annual Carnegie Internationals of 1929 and 1930, respectively. The following excerpt from my biography analyzes their connections:

The painting Lost City in the Andes mounts in excitement toward the highest altitude of the Andes but almost immediately returns the eye from that far picture field to rest on the tiny hieroglyphs, almost hidden on the forward rampart of the walled city and the patterned wreckage of antique time only to be turned back again by the enigmatic mass of Macchu Picchu leading us off into the distance. It is also important to note Ross Moffett's use of color in this painting which is a rich combination of earth tones modified by blues and grays which coalesce the whole work. Lost City in the Andes must clearly be identified with its philosophical and archaeological theme which does not detract from its purely visual merits. The discovery of Macchu Picchu by Hiram Bingham and his Peruvian Expedition in 1912 made a great impression on Ross Moffett, not just as an archaeological achievement but as a point of philosophical reference. Both elements are combined in this painting to a high pitch of integrated art, largely because Moffett himself was a thorough amateur archaeologist and could train his faculties of observation to achieve an all-inclusive synthesis of the scientific, philosophical and pictorial aspects of what concerned him in a total plastic relationship.[7]

The Conquest of Mexico begins where the Lost City in the Andes ends and carries us further toward a Cubistic experience of exceptional exhilaration. It is a modern masterpiece. The picture plane is very shallow but not completely two-dimensional. It is tipped sufficiently to cascade sensations and objects toward us, just short of spilling them in our lap; however, they remain in a marvelous jumble of frozen falling ready to be studied endlessly, textures and colors providing us with a box of semiprecious jewels. The proscenium of the picture plane is flanked by a kind of curtain arch that frames the center of interest, and, in the near depths of atmosphere, the cut-out clouds appliquéd against the blue horizontals successfully restrain us from going too far into the picture field. Thus, the exciting examination of the symbolic demise of dreams and distant civilizations is revealed, even to the uninitiated eye, through the challenge of the painting. There is not a color or a shape that is not individually considered while, at the same time, being part of the entire organized disorganization.[8]

Prison Riot is a combination of the realistic and the abstract in balance. It is a work in which this type of synthesis is clearly made visible, an obvious variation on the family of paintings just discussed, Lost City in the Andes and The Conquest of Mexico. It is almost as if one can hear Moffett saying to himself, "Let's take the same analysis of the picture field, substituting the figure for the shards of civilization's remainder," so that one looks at the prisoners as archaeological elements. They fall in front of the prison structure just as the remains of a civilization scatter at the foot of Macchu Picchu. The elements of architecture as design are characteristic of all three paintings.[9]

On September 23, 1930, Moffett arrived in Pittsburgh with the other members of the Jury of Selection for the Carnegie International. This jury consisted of Charles Burchfield, Emil Carlson, N.A., Bernard Karfiol, Ross Moffett, Horatio Walker, N.A., Leopold Seyffert, N.A. The jury's responsibility was to select, from roughly 1,400 paintings, about 35 that would be added to 100 or so invited works already selected. In other words, only 135 works of art from the United States were part of the exhibition.

The Jury of Awards on which Moffett was one of two American jurors-the other was Karfiol-had the equally daunting task of selecting 7 of 425 paintings to receive a prize. The final list of prizes was allocated as follows: First Prize -- Picasso; Second Prize -- Alexander Brook; Third Prize -- Charles DuFresne; First Honorable Mention -- Henry Lee McFee; Honorable Mentions -- Maurice Sterne, Niles Spencer, and Giuseppe Montanari.

When the dust settled on this major event, the art critic Forbes Watson observed: "For my part it strikes me that the International, on the whole, is the best exhibition that Mr. Homer St. Gaudens has ever assembled," and later concluded: "In the case of the larger countries, the United States has easily the best delegation of pictures that it has ever sent to Pittsburgh." This summation certainly reflects praise for the American jurists as a whole and especially for the influence of an artist of Moffett's integrity and judgment.

In refreshing our view of Ross Moffett's works for the International (fig. 42), it is clear that what was represented was a selection of his major interests over a very broad spectrum, both in terms of time and technique. The Eclipse (1927; private collection), for instance, is clearly part of a decade-long preoccupation with a kind of figuration that can be read in many of his canvases from 1916 to 1927. There is still a touch of the fundamental awkwardness of stance and the narrative placement of the figures in The Eclipse that we see in the masterpiece The Back Street Provincetown. It also reflects a Munch-like mysticism that pervades some of the earlier canvases such as Blue Snow, Figures and Goose, and The Crucifixion. After 1927 this configuration moved rapidly, as we have seen in Planting Potatoes, toward a new threshold of works such as Gull Hill, Manta Wharf, The Cod Fisherman, and others that hold back, with a more complete architectonic metaphor, the intense emotional communication of a ruder and darker vision. The Eclipse may be the last of these evocative canvases. Ryder would have been interested in the charcoal sun and the eerie quality of the landscape peopled by Moffett's dramatis personae in full attendance. His shadow patterns excite the painting, and the whole is presented with a compelling orchestration in a minor key.

That leaves us with the third of Moffett's paintings exhibited at the 1930 Carnegie International, The Red Dory (1928; Nebraska Art Association). The Red Dory securely establishes its entity entirely apart from the other two paintings. It places us in the dory with a Provincetown fisherman, perhaps with the catch of the day. It is a recurring motif and one Moffett loved to expand endlessly. He lived with the types he painted and captured in the full range of the symbolism of the "fisherman" and his universe. His Cod Fisherman, the fishermen and their families on Manta Wharf, the lone fisherman of The Red Dory, the congestive activity of boats and men in Clam Digger Fleet (1931; Provincetown Art Association Museum), and the quiet conversation about fishing between the resting farmers of the sea in Conversation on the Shore (1932; Cape Cod Museum of Art) and so many other canvases define what to Moffett was not just the figuration so congenial to the artist painting the fishermen, whether young or old, but "man" fishing, the architecture of the idea held permanently within a sense of place, all of which he observed first, painted second, and loved last; it became his life and now it is ours.

In the midst of all the activity preparatory to the International, Moffett received a letter from his mother dated August 6 that reads, in part: "Ross, do you expect to come to Pittsburgh in September in that jury? We are always glad to get Dorothy's letters, but would be glad to get a letter from you oftener."[10] Her effort to understand and relate to the major event that was transpiring in her son's life was in stark contrast to her real concerns, which were the intense heat of an Iowa summer and the bad corn and oats crop. In referring to Margaret Gelvin Moffett, his mother, it is important to include and to briefly examine Moffett's background and the influence of his parents in relation to his career.

It was abundantly clear to Ross Moffett at an early age that he could not carry on what his father, James Warren Moffett, had assumed would be passed to his son as a way of life on their farm -- an inheritance that would automatically succeed, if possible, to the next generation. That was an understandable and a completely logical assumption in James Moffett's case and one he acted upon routinely throughout Ross Moffett's early life. As Ross dutifully followed his father's wishes to stake out a land claim of some 160 acres of virgin land in Tripp County, South Dakota, during the government's land lottery in 1909, he wrestled with the conflict of filial obedience as opposed to inner commitment. His course as an artist, one might suggest, had been predestined within his own temperament from birth, and when his grade-school teacher wrote on the blackboard "Ross Moffett Artist" she spelled out the actuality of his life in prophetic terms and with an imprimatur rarely given with such simple, direct insight.

Moffett became an artist in spite of the strong desire of both his parents that he be an Iowa farmer, for the love of the land and the dedication to farming was deep in their collective family traditions and did not move easily away from something so essential as the tilling of the soil -- man's eternal and almost religious commitment to what, in every generation, had seemed to mean survival. Owning and managing a farm had been to James and Margaret Moffett the epitome of earthly success. Going against this fundamental way of life could not have been easy for Ross, but it must have been nearly an unthinkable decision as seen from the standpoint of his parents. That they did, however, overcome their disappointment and manage to assist him in every substantial way they could in order to enable him to enroll as an art student-first in Des Moines and, finally, at the Art Institute of Chicago -- and to bless his flight from the farm toward a career as a painter is one of those miracles that only love can accomplish. The sacrifice was enormous; Moffett's resultant achievement could never have happened without it. One might say, therefore, that this is how the farmer of Clearfield, Iowa, eventually became the painter of Provincetown, Massachusetts. The truth is, however, that the Iowa farm never really left him, and in 1930, the year of his most important recognition as an artist of national stature, he painted a canvas recollecting his origins with genuine empathy and pictorial elegance, The Iowa Farm (1930; Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum). In what turned out to be the unexpected irony in this Chekovian scenario, it was Ross's sister, Faye Moffett, a schoolteacher, who was fully dedicated to the land and successfully ran the farm after her parents' death until it was sold in 1951.

Just as Margaret Gelvin had lamented, it was Moffett's wife who regularly sent her the complete news of life in Provincetown. Dorothy Lake Gregory Moffett (1893-1975), an artist of exceptional talent and sensitivity, could not have been more sustaining to her husband throughout their entire marriage of fifty-one years. Each turn of events, whether positive or negative, she treated with finesse and the sure certitude of overcoming hardship and of mocking the worst and transforming it to better possibilities. Dorothy was the granddaughter of John Milton Gregory, who was the founding president and first regent of the University of Illinois, established in 1867 as the Illinois Industrial University, and she and her brother, John Worthington Gregory, gave the art colony of Provincetown, in their time, a combined graphic legacy that can rarely be matched in any similar art environment today -- John as a skilled etcher, lithographer, and photographer, and Dorothy as a painter, lithographer, and illustrator of children's books. Each of them studied with some of the best instructors of their day -- in John's case, with John Sloan; in Dorothy's case, with Robert Henri, Charles Hawthorne, and others.

Dorothy's high spirits, sense of humor, and perennial optimism were the yeast that Moffett required to lighten and sustain his life in so many ways. Active together in their pursuit of art, they formed a spiritual and working intimacy to accomplish their shared objectives. Such independent dependency is the very oxymoron that can never be broken in such cases and that promotes the best possible artistic synergy for personal achievement. Outliving Moffett by only four years, Dorothy spent her last days painting at her husband's easel, literally and figuratively, while making every effort to promote the memory of his career, first through a major retrospective mounted by the Worcester Art Museum in spring 1975 that traveled to the Provincetown Art Association directly afterward that summer[11] and, finally, by giving me unlimited access to his work and archives.

After the 1975 retrospective, I arranged a traveling exhibition of Moffett's monotypes to expand and extend the appreciation of his work (figs. 43, 44). The first of five museums to endorse this exhibition was the New Britain Museum of American Art, which enthusiastically accepted the invitation to participate.[12] How fittingly, then, that this second look at Moffett's work and presence on the American scene is by a museum whose critical endorsement of his legacy was established so many years ago. Moffett carried forward a continuous production of monotypes in tandem with his oil painting, from the very first monotypes such as Watching the Bathers (1916; private collection) and On the Beach (1916; Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums) until 1948-a timeline based on the monotypes that I know to be extant. Very few American painters had chosen to work extensively in the medium, with the exception of Maurice Prendergast and William Merritt Chase, in the generation prior to Moffett's. Several of his friends made some concentrated forays into the use of the monotype, especially Karl Knaths and, to a lesser degree, Edwin Dickinson among a number of others. Richard E. Miller, Hawthorne's contemporary, had also used the medium extensively in his career; Ross Moffett, however, gave the monotype a continuous comprimario role that underscored the main themes of his oil painting. In citing the importance of this body of Moffett's work, I would, therefore, like to reiterate rather than rephrase what I said about a particular series of ten monotypes produced between about 1927 and 1931 in the chapter I devoted to his monotypes:

The great series of ten monotypes which he executed during this period are what I like to refer to as the Provincetown sibyls. They all depict women occupied in a variety of activities in the dune country, each one arrested in a moment of perennial anticipation: leaning slightly into the wind, shawl hugged tightly around the shoulders; resting on a hoe, caught in a second of repose; watching, waiting, waving the return of a fishing schooner. These are the women of the species "man," and they are a three-act play or a narrative poem, but they cannot be mistaken for genre. Moffett meant to poeticize their working life. He chose a medium, moreover, that, for all its seemingly transitory nature, somehow vastly enriches and makes permanent, not only their outline in the firmament, but the solid earth and the vast sea and sky, between which they are forever poised in labor or in longing.[13]

Thus we arrive at the moment when the generational changes in the art community of Provincetown and beyond began to shift once again, and shortly after the successful opening of the Carnegie International in fall 1930 Charles Hawthorne died at age fifty-eight. No teacher since Hawthorne has so dominated the Provincetown art colony except Hans Hofmann (1880­1966). His figure is still very tall against today's horizon in spite of the diminishing perspective of eighty years. The Hawthorne legacy was maintained for a time by John Frazier (1889­1966), who established his own seasonal school in summer 1930, quite unsuspecting of his teacher's demise, and by another assistant, Henry Hensche (1901­1993), who, deleting the "Cod," very actively continued the Cape School of Art until 1986. No presence, however, replaced Hawthorne's, nor could it. There is no way to carry on the legacy of a great teacher except through the diversity and achievement of his students, who, as mature artists, rework the materials of his teaching to create their own careers. As I discuss in my biography:

Ross Moffett, among others, was such a student and such an artist. He continued to change and to readjust his focality through the most active metamorphoses. Just as he had been influenced by Hawthorne, but not overwhelmed when he realized his own priorities in 1916, so he continued to set new priorities with deliberate and independent determination in the particularly significant years between 1927 and 1931. He constructed a strong, personal bridge across the decade of modernist exploration, stepping fearlessly into the new territory of the '30s, which was to prove, at times, so inimical to the American artist as well as to American society in general.[14]

On July 18, 1942, the Hawthorne Memorial Gallery was dedicated. Ten years later a memorial exhibition of Hawthorne's work was held for which Hans Hofmann wrote "an appreciation." The final paragraph contains the following encomium: "The master and tutor is no more. Yet he has succeeded in endowing his work with -- what I may be permitted to call -- the eternal 'aurore de la vie.'"[15] The sum of influences in the art community of Provincetown has continued, since Hawthorne's time, to expand, not contract, and to reflect this continuous "aurore de la vie."

Moffett, thoughtfully absorbing the ideas that reached him in those years was a beneficiary of the continual comings and goings of the tides, as each day's acquired experiences and inspirations washed along the shore. In a metaphorical sense, therefore, we may say that the great traditions in painting that we have just discussed and alluded to are still present today and will be tomorrow in the moving tides of Provincetown.


1. Josephine C. Del Deo and Ross Moffett, Figures in a Landscape: The Life and Times of the American Painter Ross Moffett, 1888-1971 (Virginia Beach: Donning Co., 1994).

2. Ross Moffett, Art in Narrow Streets: The First Thirty-Three Years of the Provincetown Art Association, 1914­1947 (Falmouth: Kendall Printing Co., 1964), p. 46.

3. Ibid.

4. Del Deo and Moffett, Figures in a Landscape, part 2, pp. 133, 157.

5. Moffett, Art in Narrow Streets, p. 50.

6. Del Deo and Moffett, Figures in a Landscape, part 1, p. 62.

7. Ibid., part 2, p. 144.

8. Ibid., p. 145.

9. Ibid., p. 148.

10. In his remarks in a series of articles on the Carnegie International for The Arts magazine (November, 1930), quoted in ibid., pp. 151, 153.

11. Moffett, 1888-1971: Retrospective, Worcester Art Museum, May 30­July 6, 1975; and Provincetown Art Association, August 29­September 29, 1975.

12. Charles B. Ferguson, Director, New Britain Museum of American Art, to author, July 27, 1976. Archives of Josephine Del Deo.

13. Del Deo and Moffett, Figures in a Landscape, part 2, p. 269.

14. Ibid., pp. 155­56.

15. Charles W. Hawthorne, 1872-1930, Exhibition of Paintings, July 4­September 7, 1952 (Provincetown: Provincetown Art Association, 1952).

About the author

Josephine C. Del Deo is an author, historian, and former Director, Provincetown Heritage Museum, Provincetown, Massachusetts.


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on August 15, 2011.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle, Assistant Curator, and Claudia Thesing, Director of Development, of the New Britain Museum of American Art for their help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.

RL readers may also enjoy biographical information on selected artists cited in this article in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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